What a topsy-turvy art world we live in! To anyone over the age of (fill in the blank), or to anyone raised on the idea of a fine artist as a talented loner practicing a solitary craft whose noncommercial results only infrequently coincide with a rich collector’s eccentric tastes, our 21st-century demimonde is a strange thing indeed. Consider some examples from the new exposé, Seven Days in the Art World. In 2002, one of the biggest international art stars on the current scene, Tokyo’s Takashi Murakami, “reconceptualized” his practice “along the lines of a marketing and communications company.” Where other artists merely have a few studio assistants (O.K., Jeff Koons has 80), Murakami boasts an executive director for the New York branch of his multinational operation. His L.A. dealers say their real business is “to sell symptoms articulated as objects.” One of them adds that the curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles—where Murakami’s copyrighted retrospective exhibition debuted last year—“has done some scholarly shit and some spectacular shows. It’s money well spent—[but] peanuts compared to what we’ve poured into fabricating [Murakami’s large sculpture] Oval [Buddha].” In other words, a single work by an art star costs as much merely to manufacture as the budget for several of Paul Schimmel’s big survey shows put together.
On the still operative succès de scandaleend of things: after a UCLA grad student scared the bejeezus out of a seminar in 2004 by faking his suicide (in-class Russian roulette, sudden exit, an off-stage gunshot), his professor, Chris Burden—an artist whose initial fame was based on having himself shot and crucified, and who, in spite of putatively “distrust[ing] institutions,” taught at UCLA for a quarter century—retired (presumably with full pension) in protest of his student’s breach of etiquette. Such an art world—huge, flashy, megamoneyed, financially savvy and run with a firm (albeit implied) code of conduct—is as different from the last midcentury’s as, to draw a parallel with movies, Sex and the City is from The Bicycle Thief.
The book’s author, Sarah Thornton, a tri-national (born in Canada, studied in Britain, lives part-time in the U.S.) freelancer with a degree in sociology as well as one in art history, takes us on a tour of this shiny new art world. She says it’s lots more fascinating than the previous two subcultures she’s plumbed, London dance clubs and “brand planning.” Thornton’s itinerary consists of seven separate days, the accounts spaced out over four years, 2004-2007, and arranged in chapters that, with one exception, follow the chronological order of her itinerary: “The Auction,” “The Crit,” “The Fair,” “The Prize,” “The Magazine,” “The Studio Visit” and “The Biennale.”
To me, four of the chapters are fairly negligible, though not necessarily because of the treatment Thornton gives them. The section on the Turner Prize (which figures prominently in my essay “Art Sweepstakes” [see A.i.A., Mar. ’08]) basically reveals how awkward artists are at their own Oscars ceremony, where all the finalists have to be present. Mark Titchner says that when he lost, “It was like being dumped by your girlfriend in public, then asked to be ‘just friends.’” The Art Basel fair, where works by Turner Prize contenders and their like are bought and sold, is eminently predictable: a confluence of not-very-likeable people (or people who may otherwise be likeable but who certainly aren’t showing it in Switzerland) in an orchestrated feeding frenzy repellently similar to the richies oooh-ing and aaah-ing over coats made of monkey fur in Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 play The Hairy Ape. I mean, how much sympathy can you have for a “full time” collector with this pressing problem: she wants a certain artist’s A-plus painting, but it won’t be available for her to purchase until 5 p.m., if at all. Meanwhile, there’s a B-minus work by the same hand on which her reserve will be held only until 4 p.m. We assume she hasn’t got the euros to buy both. Oh, what to do? What to do? If she’d acted like art consultant Philippe Ségalot did—he reportedly had a makeup artist transform him into a bald man with a shipper’s pass so he could get in before the fair officially opened—maybe she could have preempted the dilemma.
The Venice Biennale is where many art fair successes take their games to the next level. Yet the 2007 installment directed by Rob Storr was, in spite of boffo box office, a critical disaster. Given the exchange of cannonades between Storr and a handful of his critics in Artforum (great reading if you’re a fan of those Sunday morning “shouting shows” on television), probably the less said about the dustup the better. Still, one addendum: perhaps it was the over-educated Storr’s naivete that got him into trouble. Quoted in the introduction to Seven Days, he ventures, “The function of museums is to make art worthless again. They take the work out of the market and put it in a place where it becomes part of the common wealth.” Tell that to the trustees, collectors, lenders and helpful dealers who watch the value of an artist’s oeuvre increase dramatically the moment a piece enters any exhibition at a major museum, let alone its collection.
The auction at Christie’s in November 2004 has some plot pull to it. Will painter Marlene Dumas become only the third woman ever to have a work sell for more than a mil? Will auctioneer Christopher Burge’s secret notebook—a full page on each lot, along with a diagram of where the power players are seated and jottings as to who’s an “aggressive buyer” or a “bottom-feeder”—help turn the trick? While our breath is bated, Thornton wanders through the throng, picking up factual tidbits and harvesting quotes. We learn, for instance, that a “good Basquiat” is one that was made in 1982 or ’83, has a head or a crown in it, and evidences the color red. Art consultant Dominique Levy notes at the evening’s conclusion that for “works that sell below $5 million, the market is astonishingly deep—deeper than ever. But I was surprised that the market for expensive works was thinner tonight.” (She and I obviously eat at different hot dog carts.)
And we meet the big-time collector “Dwight Titan,” one of the five people appearing in Seven Days who requested pseudonyms. Although, in this case, it’s not a very opaque one. Thornton reveals that “Titan” is giving a Murakami “727” painting to the Museum of Modern Art. So, a little Googling and presto! David Teiger, who probably didn’t want folks to read about him at Art Basel, waiting for a girlfriend who is “blond and half his age” to arrive. “What period do you collect?” somebody asks him. “This morning,” he answers. “You like art by young artists?” is the follow-up question. “I don’t necessarily like it, but I buy it,” is the response, allegedly a joke.
All these people, says Josh Baer, son of the late Minimalist painter Jo Baer and proprietor of The Baer Faxt market-watch website, “are overinformed and undereducated.” They can also be a little self-pitying, like the daughter who gets all choked up about raking in millions by relinquishing the beloved treasures of her parents’ collection, as if the auction were Sophie’s Choice redux.
Oh yes, the Dumas picture sells for $1.1 million. But, as a footnote declares, within four years Bridget Riley, Jenny Saville, Cindy Sherman and Lisa Yuskavage had all cracked that price barrier, too.
By far, the best—and weirdest—chapter concerns Michael Asher’s legendary Friday crit session (he’s run it since 1974!) at the California Institute of the Arts in the Melvin and Howard exurb of Los Angeles called Valencia, also home to Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park. (A painter friend of mine used to say that if CalArts switched campuses with Six Flags, nobody’d know the difference.) CalArts, Thornton writes, is “an incubator of sorts, where students transform themselves into artists and learn the vocabulary of the trade.” What kind of students? The school’s dean, Thomas Lawson, describes them simply as “the kind of kids who didn’t quite fit in at high school.”
These young bourgeois bohemians—or, more likely, their parents—fork over $27,000 in yearly tuition, and grad students typically muster out $50,000 in debt. What do they get for all this dough? Everybody’s favorite conceptual artist, John Baldessari, who used to teach at CalArts in the early days before he moved over to another of L.A.’s hot-hot-hot art schools, UCLA, says, “Students need to see that art is made by human beings just like them.” Grad students get little studio spaces of their own—accessible 24/7 but no living in them allowed, understand? (uh-huh)—the doors of which they decorate with “oversized names, cartoon numbers, collages, and even bas-relief sculptures.” And everybody subscribes to the CalArts mantra “no technique before need,” which presumably means that if your project requires, say, ecorché or glazing porcelain, you can quickly pick it up in time to use it for your thesis show. As for faculty, teaching at CalArts (or at Art Center College of Design or USC, the other art-world equivalents of l’Ecole Normale Supérieur) is, according to Thornton, a valuable “credibility-enhancer.”
Asher, of course, no longer needs such a boost to his cred. His conceptual projects (a gallery wall seamlessly removed, the studs of ghost walls from past shows reinstalled in a museum, etc.) are so marketably nonmarket that his every word—although there be very, very few of them—is hung upon by students as though Asher were the reincarnation of that Indian prince who wandered the Gangetic Plain 2,500 years ago. Asher enters the austere crit room at 10 a.m. sharp. “He has a stoop and a bowlegged gait,” writes Thornton. “Asher comes across as a monk in street clothes.” According to a student, “Michael is so minimal and abstract that sometimes I think he might dematerialize before our eyes.” The aspiring artists in the line of critical fire that day supply—as per tradition—munchies for their interlocutors: cola, cookies, mini-muffins, o.j. and grapes. Members of the peer jury sprawl over chairs, draw in sketchbooks and even knit. The knitter makes sure we know, “It’s a hobby. Not a work.”
If you’re at all used to the wide postmodernist net cast by grad school crits these days, this particular Asher session is remarkable only for its apparent emptiness. Though such high-profile CalArts alumni as Sam Durant, Dave Muller, Stephen Prina and Christopher Williams swear the crit was one of the key influences in their artistic lives, Thornton makes it seem like waiting for a not-quite-tightly-turned-off faucet to relinquish another drop of water. Silence. Then a student says to a critee whose work involves “researching” African Jewry, “Maybe you could tell us more about how you displace your dislocation onto Africans?” No indication of his answer. More silence. “At 1:30,” Thornton writes, “Josh [the artist-researcher] peels an orange. A stomach grumbles. Asher vaguely raises a finger. I expect he is going to adjourn for lunch, but instead he asks, ‘What do you want, Josh? Put the group to work.’” After the long-awaited lunch adjournment—a car caravan to a nearby Whole Foods—the crit resumes its glacial progress. By 9:15 p.m., “Asher is probably the only faculty member left in the building. . . . ‘For clear investigations [Asher tells Thornton postmortem], you need time. That is the only rule of thumb. If you don’t have it, you run the risk of being superficial.’” At midnight, “we’re all a bit punch-drunk. A new round of food-sharing ensues—bags of Hershey’s Kisses and other chocolate goodies.” At one o’clock Saturday morning, the crit is finally over. “The students leave,” Thornton recalls, “but I stay to take one last look at the abandoned room. Huge piles of trash-filled grocery bags, orange peels, and snack wrappers litter the floor. The space no longer feels dry and institutional but complicated and inspired.” Can’t anybody see? It’s a piece!
At the time of Thornton’s day at Artforum in 2007, Eric Banks was the editor of its literary spin-off, Bookforum. “Reading takes a long time and it’s solitary,” he tells her, “whereas art fosters quick-forming imagined communities.” Which is a nice way of saying that the core activity of the art world—fast peeks at thousands of objects and images, often accomplished while in the company of chatty friends and with a plastic glass of middling white wine in hand—is why the old adage about opinions being like anuses (because everybody has one) applies so convincingly there. Thornton seems to agree when she says that art critics (you know, we drudges who write for the art magazines) “stick their finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing so as to ‘get it right.’” She hides this cynicism well enough, though, to have pleasant chats with the publisher and editor of the magazine. To a great many readers what she draws out of them may seem to be real inside info but, judging from my years at Newsweek, it’s par for the journalistic course. The publisher says it’s his job to stick his nose in everybody’s business but somehow remain invisible while he does it. He and the editor are at pains to make their writers “feel loved.” The editor says he has to be “open to all factions . . . while still exercising judgment.”
The one good, chewy fact is one that—with a stack of back issues, a pad of Post-its and too much time on your hands—you could figure out for yourself: ad placement is the most import ingredient of all. MOMA’s ad, for instance, is always slotted after a lot of others in Artforum but right before the editorial content begins. The publisher explains, “It says to everyone, ‘Hey, you’re ahead of MOMA, so shut up, don’t complain.’” And for reasons of bucks, clout and seniority, Marian Goodman always gets the spot opposite the table of contents, Gagosian the one facing the contributors’ page, and Bruno Bischofberger’s coyly irrelevant photographs of Swiss daily life have occupied the back cover since the 1980s. The best quotes, however, come from off-premises, from the New Yorker’sreliably smooth writer, Peter Schjeldahl: Art criticism is a “minor art, like stand-up comedy,” and “bad writing is a self-punishing offense. It doesn’t get read, except by people who have to read it.”
“The Studio Visit” isn’t, alas, about trucking up four flights of Brooklyn stairs to see how a recent CalArts grad is trying to get in the game. Rather, it’s a kind of state visit to Murakami’s industrial-strength atelier in Japan from a delegation consisting of two museum curators (from MoCA in L.A. and the Brooklyn Museum) and an L.A. dealer pair. Murakami pseudo-charmingly utters a lot of pseudo-unguarded, pseudo-self-effacing truths that you don’t believe for a minute. He tries to out-Warhol Warhol—who famously liked everything—by saying “I like everything” about Warhol. And he tries to co-opt Duchamp by saying that his ethically challenged in-show Louis Vuitton boutique is “my urinal.” If Jeff Koons is the art world’s TV evangelist, Murakami is its Martha Stewart. Where are you, Francis Bacon and Ad Reinhardt, now that we really need you?
What’s good about Seven Days is the totality of things I’ve synopsized above. Thornton went out, reported and wrote her account in clear, professional, plain English. The book does not paint a pretty picture—her chapters jibe fairly exactly with the seven deadly sins (you do the cross-refs)—but a revealing one. The big flaw is one of tone and position. Thornton is neither a fluid-prose outsider who slyly hands her subjects just enough rope, nor a slash-and-burn insider armed with stats, cocktail-party connections and what Janet Malcolm calls a journalist’s necessary instinct for betrayal. When Thornton tries to leaven the book’smiddle-of-the-road art-worldliness with bits of writerliness, it doesn’t work. For example, this about New York Times critic Roberta Smith musing on the interface of art criticism and art history: “She took a bite of her sandwich and tilted her head.” Though the sentence fairly flashes “attention: telling detail” in neon, it says almost nothing. Plenty of people I know take bites of their sandwiches while considering something, and a lot of them tilt their heads while doing it.
But the problem Thornton tackles is, at bottom, far, far greater than any quibbles I might have about the style of her book, and we should be thankful to her for nailing it: “In [an art] world that has jettisoned craftsmanship as the dominant criterion by which to judge art, a higher premium is put on the character of the artist. If artists are seen to be creating art simply to cater to the market, it compromises their integrity and the market loses confidence in their work.” By “character” I take her to mean in part the honest—and not for-market false—prickliness of an artist. Our new century’s art world has come to most completely resemble what Ronald Reagan is supposed to have said about movie acting—that sincerity was the key, and once you could fake that you had it licked. Now that Damien Hirst—with his recent $200 million haul at Sotheby’s—has so decisively proved that character, too, can be faked, we can see just how completely the art world has absorbed the advice of the Great Communicator.
Peter Plagens is a painter and critic who lives in New York.